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The Big Answer

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A History of Private Life, Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium

a book by Paul Veyne, editor

(our site's book review)

The book is the first of 5 in the series.

Among other things, the book points out the solidarity people experienced centuries ago—solidarity with relatives and extended family, whom they lived with or near, and solidarity with neighbors. This is not the way Americans normally live—proximity is not solidarity.

This book reveals in intimate detail what life was really like in the ancient world. Behind the vast panorama of the pagan Roman empire, the reader discovers the intimate daily lives of citizens and slaves—from concepts of manhood and sexuality to marriage and the family, the roles of women, chastity and contraception, techniques of childbirth, homosexuality, religion, the meaning of virtue, and the separation of private and public spaces.

The fall of Rome is a lesson for us today: corruption leads to disaster
The fall of Rome is a lesson for us today: corruption leads to disaster

The emergence of Christianity in the West and the triumph of Christian morality with its emphasis on abstinence, celibacy, and austerity is startlingly contrasted with the profane and undisciplined private life of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, these moralistic attitudes laid the groundwork for such Church-perpetrated atrocities as witch burnings, the Inquisition, and general oppression of the people. The Enlightenment was a breath of fresh air into the stagnant lives people were used to.

See Sacred Pleasure and A Dream Deferred.

A witch burning
A witch burning